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Sunday 31 August 2014

Eoghan Harris: Mauling by Cats highlights the futility of crying over spilt milk

Eoghan Harris

Published 15/08/2010 | 05:00

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SOARING aloft, a kestrel bends its beak to deliver the death blow to a curled rat clenched in its talons. Truly, Dara Mac Donaill's stunning photo on the front page of The Irish Times last Tuesday summed up what Tennyson meant by "nature, red in tooth and claw".

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Last Sunday, the Cork hurlers were like that rodent. Not just doomed, but justifiably doomed, destined to play a minor but necessary part in the vast Darwinian plan whereby Cody and his Kilkenny kestrels evolve into some super hurling species before our eyes. Today, Waterford and Tipp compete to be the next rat in the food chain.

Although Donal Og Cusack said Kilkenny were like The Stepford Wives, the simile would have suited Cork better. Actually, Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds came closer to catching the Cork performance. It featured Tippi Hedren, a ham actress, flailing helplessly while the beaks struck, scarred and scored, again and again.

Having faced facts, however, let us not wallow. Cork must not linger too long over old wounds. Tomorrow, to fresh woods and pastures new.

Anyway, as my mother used to say, it will all be the same in a hundred years' time. Or in a few weeks.

On this peg -- the pointlessness of prolonged crying over milk long spilt and now going sour -- I propose to hang my parable for today. About anger and its alternatives.

Like many Irish people, I have a lot on my mind, financial and medical. So I won't pretend to be like Wordsworth's man of "cheerful yesterdays and confident tomorrows". But I do try to avoid anarchic and ultimately useless anger in the face of adversity.

Aristotle, in the Ethics, says it is not easy to be angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right object and in the right way. No, it's not. Certainly most of our pontificating academic and media pundits are neither angry with the right person or with the right object.

Let's try to pair the right persons with the right objects. Some pundits simply blame Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen. Possibly they are the "right persons". But their blamers are open to the charge of rigging the "right object" by having a narrow party agenda.

Other critics blame it all on Seanie FitzPatrick and greedy bankers. But again, the "right object" is too often ideological, a blow on behalf of socialism -- which was tried in six states, worked in none, and is not going to make a comeback any time soon.

Only a few pundits seem to remember the biggest number of fat birds who flew under the radar were the freeloaders in the public service and professions. Senior civil servants who slipped away with million-pound pensions and slid into equally cushy posts in the private sector. Barristers who battened on the bloated fees of the moralist tribunals.

As you can see, the list of the loathsome is long. You may believe Fianna Fail will never bring them to book. But do you seriously believe that Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore will hang those fat cats as high as their pensions? No, the Rainbow may make a few populist moves but electoral endgames mean it cannot move far from Fianna Fail's current policies.

So, do I believe that we should do nothing? No, but I believe it is bad politics on the part of our pundits to constantly work up public anger without giving us a credible alternative. Simply swapping the Rainbow for the Coalition is no change. Like Kiltartan's poor, "no likely end can bring them loss, or leave them happier than before".

But I do believe in two things. First, in social democracy, which means slow reforms and soldiering on. Here I follow the political philosopher, Karl Popper, who saw through fascism and communism and believed it was better to fix the parts of the system that were broken rather than try to create a brand new system from scratch.

Second, I believe that none of the main parties are corrupt in any meaningful sense of the word. Most politicians are both ready for reform in their own ranks and anxious to flush out the freeloaders who feed on the weak. But they are paralysed by a party system where greedy power groups can play off the two major parties against the other.

The only political force that can face down the powerful fat cats in the professions and public service is a centrist party which commands a coercive majority. This can only be created by the fusion of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. And since a maddened electorate is about to move messily to the left (rather than to Fine Gael) the time to think about this is right now.

Accordingly, I was a bit baffled by Senator Liam Twomey's opposition to Brian Lenihan speaking at Beal na mBlath. Let me interject quickly here that I rate Liam Twomey, both as a politician and a doctor. But I think he is wrong about Brian Lenihan for three reasons.

First, Brian Lenihan would not be the first Fianna Failer to turn up at Beal na mBlath, nor the most nationalist: that honour belongs to Sile de Valera. Second, I think it's pushing it a bit to say Collins was murdered by Lenihan's predecessors in Fianna Fail.

Last, I am fairly sure the Lenihan family took the Free State side in the Civil War. And it left a mark. Because while Brian and Conor Lenihan, and their aunt Mary O'Rourke, are all loyal Fianna Failers, they are far from fanatical Fianna Failers.

It seems to me that the Lenihans are to Fianna Fail what Jennifer Sleeman of Clonakilty is to the Roman Catholic Church. Although Jennifer converted to Catholicism a long time ago, in calling for a boycott of the mass (to protest the secondary status of women in the Roman Catholic Church) she still shows traces of the Presbyterian tradition of thinking for oneself. Thank God.

Let me come to the crux. I, too, am tired of the phrase, "we are where we are". But like all truisms, it happens to be true. And the tired phrase is only a dumbing down of Hegel's timeless -- and true -- insight that freedom is the recognition of necessity.

Faced with the K2 of the national debt I have two choices: give into gibbering rage, or figure out which parts of the system need fixing first. But I can't make a start if I am paralysed by apocalyptic anger or indulging myself in useless utopian speculations about making a fresh start, free from sin.

Life has to be lived within the limits of the possible. Academic socialists and media moralists could learn a lot from the philosopher of pragmatism, William James (brother of the novelist Henry) about whom Perry O'Donovan wrote an absorbing piece in the Irishman's Diary of The Irish Times last week.

As an admirer of William James, let me finish with a few of his wise words about not striking apocalyptic postures. "I personally gave up the Absolute . . . I fully believe in taking moral holidays." Me too. At least in August.

Sunday Independent

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